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Sharing pastors, staying alive
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New stained glass windows were installed at Bethel Lutheran Church in Warba to celebrate the church's 100th birthday. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
Churches in small towns all over Minnesota are struggling to stay afloat. Every year, some are forced to make the decision to close, or to merge with another church. It's the same problem for a lot of institutions in small towns. Schools consolidate, stores close, churches merge. But some find creative ways to stay alive and independent. Some churches train lay people to act as pastors. Others return to an old tradition - sharing pastors.

Jacobson, Minn. — On a recent Sunday, about 40 people filled the pews at Bethel Lutheran Church in Warba -- 15 miles southeast of Grand Rapids. The room is bright, with colors from the new stained glass windows -- made by a local artist to help celebrate Bethel's 100th birthday.

Ten years ago, members thought they might have to close Bethel down because they couldn't pay the bills.

Judy Anderson-Bauer is conducting the service on this day. Her sermon is about Luke's portrayal of Jesus as a "compassionate rabble-rouser."

"Jesus is always -- especially in Luke's gospel -- always giving attention to the down-and-outers of his day," she reminds the congregation. "And in this story, about as down-est and out-est as you can get is a Samaritan leper. Well, it could get a little worse if it was a woman Samaritan leper. She would be at the bottom of the stack, but this is pretty low."

Judy Anderson-Bauer and her husband, Loren, are both Lutheran pastors. And they share the job of ministering to three churches.

After the service, a handful of children get a Sunday school lesson, while the adults gather in the fellowship hall for a snack of ham spread, homegrown tomatoes, and homemade pickles.

Then Judy Anderson-Bauer heads down the road to Carmel Lutheran Church in Jacobson, 10 miles south.

"The good thing is, when you've got the pastor and the organist in the same car, they're never going to start without you," she says with a smile.

The organist is the Anderson-Bauers' daughter, Cynthia. She's been filling in since the other organist quit a couple of years ago. Cynthia is going off to college next year. But her mother says someone will turn up to play.

She says when she and her husband got the call to minister to three churches in northern Minnesota, it seemed like a good fit.

"We like serving little congregations," she says. "The people have been kind, and good to work with. They take responsibility for their own congregation and for the ministry of their own churches. And it makes being a pastor with them really easy -- just a joy."

But it does requires some organization. This morning, while Judy Anderson-Bauer is preaching at the two tiny churches in Warba and Jacobson, her husband Loren is preaching at the third church they serve, in Bovey, 20 miles to the north.

"In Bovey, I'm responsible for all meetings, all funerals, all weddings, and most counseling situations," Judy Anderson-Bauer explains. "And then my husband is primarily responsible for those things at these two churches."

Tiny Carmel Lutheran Church is at the juncture of two roads -- and that's about all there is in Jacobson.

Inside, you step back to a simpler time. The floor and ceiling are wood; the painted white and gold altar might have been modeled on the original Lutheran church in Germany. The windows are plain glass, but they're decorated with brightly-colored fabric window shades, with doves and crosses and other symbols.

The people in this congregation tease each other, saying the announcements take longer than the service. They ask for prayers for relatives who are sick, call for volunteers for the food shelf, and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.

The service is just the same as it was an hour earlier in the Warba church, including the sermon.

Carmel church was built in 1934. Joanne Meyer's father helped dig the basement. In those days, it was common for small rural churches to share pastors.

"They were traveling pastors, and they would come just once in a while," Meyer says. "My grandmother would do funerals -- she would get bodies ready for burial, pick flowers from her garden, and preach the sermon."

So in a way, Carmel has come full-circle, surviving by sharing a pastor again.

A church this small is like a family. Doris Nelson says you have to be aware of certain traditions.

"You come to church, you have to be careful where you sit," she says. "Because of course it's an older congregation, an older church, and there's an unwritten rule about where you sit -- don't sit in somebody's reserved spot, or even park in somebody's spot. But I enjoy that part too, even though it sounds corny."

The other member of the pastor couple, Loren Anderson-Bauer, preached at the church up in Bovey this morning. Then he drove down to Jacobson to have lunch with his wife in the fellowship hall.

He says after decades of losing population, people are starting to move here -- retirees from the Twin Cities, attracted by the forests and lakes and small town life. He says they find something they're looking for in these small churches.

"They've got options," he says. "They can drive 20 minutes into Grand Rapids for a church. But what they find when they come to Bethel or Carmel is the community. They discover that right away people know who they are, people welcome them, and sit with them at coffee and things like that."

The members of Carmel church operate a food shelf in the basement. Volunteers from other churches nearby help out.

There's a lot of cooperation here. Judy Anderson-Bauer arranged for her Lutheran church in Bovey to share a secretary with the Presbyterian church in town. And the Lutherans and Presbyterians offer a joint religious education program for elementary school students. Judy Anderson-Bauer says they might even share a building someday.

"Because we're small churches, we don't have the luxury of doing what we want for ourselves," she says. "We have to be involved in communities, we have to be involved with other churches."

The Anderson-Bauers have been here for nearly 10 years now. That longevity is part of why their churches are healthier financially, and even growing a little.

"I'd like to see them keep growing and thriving," says Judy Anderson-Bauer. "I'd like to see them have so many people in worship they have to put on additions. And they could!"

But her husband adds, "I don't want them to become so big that they lose the community. Because that's what's important."

Most of the people who show up for Sunday services are retired. They're trying to attract younger families, so the church can grow.

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